News your connection to The Boston Globe

A shocking form of therapy

FOR MANY, the term ``electric shock" conjures up images of science fiction or horror films. In the movie ``One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest," men in sterile white coats held down terrified patients while affixing metal rods to their heads. Today, shock therapy and other controversial forms of so-called aversive therapy are used in centers across Southeastern Massachusetts on children with mental retardation and autism.

Aversive therapy is the deliberate and controlled induction of some form of physiological state of shock in an individual for the purpose of psychiatric treatment. Its controversial history began in the 1930s, when it was introduced as a possible means to ``cure" people of homosexuality and schizophrenia, among other things. The idea was that by associating the patient's mind with an unpleasant stimulus (i.e. pain, nausea, or fear), the patient would be trained to discontinue activities that result in negative consequences.

That behavioral theory is applied to vulnerable children enrolled at the Judge Rotenberg Center -- a school in Canton serving students with conduct, behavior, emotional, and/or psychiatric problems and students with autism. The center operates 46 residences in Attleboro, Mansfield, Rehoboth, Norton, Randolph, Stoughton, Holbrook, and Canton.

To be fair, the objective and methodology is far different from the electric shock horrors depicted in the movies -- and some people swear it is the only effective treatment for those with certain behavioral and emotional problems. However the Judge Rotenberg Center has a troubled history. At least three students have died in its care under various circumstances and the Commonwealth has tried and failed several times to close it down.

Last week, the New York Board of Regents released a damning report following site visits to the center that documented ``serious concern" over the school's use of aversive behavioral interventions. The report noted that the background and preparation of staff is not sufficient to oversee the treatment of children with challenging emotional and behavioral problems. It also noted that skin shocks are used for relatively minor behaviors, such as nagging and failing to keep a neat appearance, and were applied to individuals while they bathed or showered, which is inconsistent with FDA regulations.

The Rotenberg Center does not believe in the use of psychotropic drugs to control or regulate behavior. Instead, the school has used water squirts, pinching, spanking, ``aromatic ammonia," mechanical restraints, and helmets with visual screens and white noise masks to punish what it considers to be undesirable behavior. In 1989, the center began using skin shocks as well. When the initial device used to deliver the shocks seemed to lose its effectiveness after the first few months, the school developed two new devices that allow instructors to shock more parts of the student's body with increasing voltages. These devices, which are worn constantly by some with mental retardation and autism, deliver shocks by remote control through small backpacks worn by students.

The Rotenberg Center is the only school in the United States known to use electric shock punishment, among other types of aversive therapy, as a means of diminishing violent or otherwise undesirable behaviors. Since the school's creation as the Brain Research Institute in 1971, both Rhode Island and California have withdrawn students and passed legislation banning aversive therapy. New Jersey has suspended any new referrals to the school. Yet Massachusetts is still permitting the center to operate and practice electroshock therapy on mentally disabled children.

I believe aversive therapy amounts to cruel andunusual punishment. We don't allow shock therapyon prisoners, and yet we condone this barbaric practice on children. I filed and helped pass an amendment tothe Senate fiscal year 2007 budget that would ban aversive therapy in Massachusetts. The House should pass it also.

All mainstream state and national disability rights organizations oppose the use of painful aversives. The report issued by the New York Board of Regents found the center unsafe, and the board is poised to pull its students from the program. It's time for Massachusetts to do the same, and, more important, to ban aversive therapy.

State Senator Brian A. Joyce represents Norfolk, Bristol and Plymouth.

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives